Holy well hunting can be a tough activity; covered in nettles, cuts, mud and water and still you may only find a boggy hole or concreted site. Even when it seems simple ie marked by a roadside it is not always easy. Therefore this is why it is important to search for wells in the winter month summed up by this comment on Geograph by a Humphrey Bolton :
“I had looked for this in vain several times, but was eventually informed by a lady of 90 years that it is under a hawthorn bush. After cautiously entering the bush from the side, removing a few nettle stems, I was able to take this photograph. Apparently it is opened up as necessary in times of drought, so there must be a stone slab under the twigs and soil.”
Thus in February I searched for the Lady well at Hartshead.
An ancient pre-Christian well
The Rev H. N Pobjoy in their 1972 ‘Story of the ancient parish of Harthead and Clifton’, states it may well have been here before the church which dates to 500 A.D in foundation. The author also states that it is possible that its waters were used by St. Paulinus to baptism local converts. The saint was based at Dewsbury so it is possible. It is also said that the church of St. Peter is aligned to the equinoxes which may indicate some pre-christian observations at the site. In the churchyard is a venerable yew said to predate the church as well. One wonders whether the church was once dedicated to St Mary originally?
It’s Kirklees so there must be a Robin Hood association
Not far from Hartshead is Kirklees were one can find Robin Hood’s grave. Therefore it would not be surprising to hear that no only did he use the yew tree in the grounds of the church for his bow – perhaps the famed one which he shot for the location of his burial – but he drank of the spring water.
Difficult to find?
In away the well being covered by the only large tree along Lady Well Lane means it is easy to find – well in winter anyway. As such I pushed back the branches beneath. The side closest to the road appeared to be closed over and covered in earth but I had heard that the site was a trough split in two. Jumping over the fence I found the other side of the trough and this was full of water. This was in line with what has been reported about the site being purposely closed up and only opened in times of drought.
Val Shepherd in their Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales in 2002 notes that there was in 1925-7 a historical pageant enacted about the church and that the area was associated with Whitsun walks. She also draws an association with Walton Cross – a cross base – derived from O.E Wagstan meaning a ‘guide’ post and was on the boundary of Bradford/Kirklees and their may have been an association with the holy well.
It would be good to see the Lady Well be restored as stated by Shepherd but at least as long as the lane is named after it it will be remembered and easier to find!
As the restrictions on travel have been largely lifted we are all free to visit holy wells again further afield so this is my last armchair visit – hopefully!
Waltham Abbey in Essex was said to have been fed by a series of well recorded Holy Springs which were granted to the Abbey by William of Wormley. It gave them the right to fish in the piscina of Wormele, and all the fountains. Wormley, itself was an estate conferred by Edward the Confessor to Waltham’s college of secular cannons, founded by Harold in 1060. This was later re- founded as an Augustinian abbey. In 1220-1222, a conduit was laid to take water in lead pipes from Wormley, about three miles away. The granting of the rights to the springs, and the laying of this facility is well recorded in a Manuscript (Harl. MS 391 folio 6). The springs were called ‘fons Wrmeleiae’, and appear to have been situated on property adjoining the main road on the east, and bound on the north by the Parish boundary, and on the south by Wharf Road. Despite what would have been a distance from the Abbey!
This area has been known as Small Wells: the conduit started here. The manuscript shows an elaborate sketch is given, with several streams and three springs: a main pipe carries the water from a pool over a bank of clay into another large pool. On the south of this were two pipes or outlets intended to carry off waste water, and to convey water for washing. It continued eastward to Waltham Abbey.
In 1907, a large section of wooden conduit was discovered in Slipe Lane. Using the early documents as their source, Waltham Abbey Historical Society sought the site(s) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Excavations were made at Smallwells, but nothing was discovered. Further excavations were made to the site and grounds of Springs House, further south from Smallwells. A survey of Cheshunt dated 1562 shows ‘the conduite crofte’. Although, now in the Parish of Cheshunt, it is believed that it was in Wormley. This revealed a trough three feet wide and one foot deep in the centre, formed in a stone layer about four feet below modern ground level, and largely filled with silt. This could not be dated but appeared to be a leet. Despite this nothing conclusive was discovered. The exact site appears to have been lost. Or has it?
Perhaps the springs did not arise at Small wells. An interesting possible alternative is described by John Edward Cussans in his History of Hertfordshire (1870-3) and again on a visit by the East Herts Archaeological Society, who visited it in 1902. These ‘once celebrated Chalybeate springs’ lay in the meadow adjoining the house of Stanstedbury. Indeed the East Herts Archaeological Society suggest was the source for Waltham Abbey’s water supply, as the house was one of their granges. Interestingly, the report continues to state that one of the springs flows into the cellar part of the house called the Monk’s chapel, where a piscina and ambry are found.
In research for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire I approached the owners, the Trowers, in the early 1990s. They said they were happy to explore the site including the cellar. I arrived and saw that there were springs in the grounds close to the house. One arising in a roughly square grey stone structure, parts of which appear old, possibly mediaeval at the base, but the water arises in a black boggy hole. There was also nearby a circular brick well head, but has been filled in, and appeared Victorian. Close to this is a deep square well which is still full of water, covered by a concrete domed structure (like a pigsty). I was informed by Mr. Trower, the owner that he has to remove iron from their own water supply hence the chalybeate springs were still present.
The water from the well head appears to flow towards the house, which would be concurrent with view of the water entering the cellars. However, despite scrambling about for some time beneath the great hall in the cellar, I could not locate this piscina and ambry. It would appear to have been lost when the room above was deepened by shortening the cellar beneath in the 1930s. This required the walling to be improved and now it is red-bricked. Mrs. Trower remembers that the cellar was very damp. Why there should be such a chapel is unclear, possibly it was designed to continue Catholic mass after the Reformation, but as Mrs. Trower noted the property was never in the hands of a recusant family although it perhaps it was part of an under croft for the grange. Interestingly, I had heard of the springs were developed as a spa but the Trowers had never heard of this, and their family had been there for a long period; nor have I found any evidence other than the springs being celebrated.
Were these springs the Holy Springs of Waltham Abbey? The distance is the problem of course Stansted Abbotts is even further away than Wormley. Perhaps they were both owned by the Abbey but not as direct water supplies as such but as waters for the communities there perhaps as holy wells and the revenue went to the Abbey?
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!
As noted last month due to the fact we are in lock down I shall continue to visit the holy wells via Youtube. This time we are visiting Scotland and we start with an excellent overview of the folklore given some while back by some unknown researcher! 🙂
It is difficult to imagine that this small and remote village was once the scene of great pilgrimage. The centre of this being St. Faith’s Well (TL 103 303). St Faith also known as Foy, a third century martyr and virgin, burned alive and beheaded at Agen in Gaul, is associated with Saints Hope and Charity. Her body translated to Conques where a splendid shrine and reliquary was established. The saint was popular with pilgrims and crusaders, and one shrine was established at Hasham, near Norwich.
It is believed that the dedication arose due to the land being in the charge of a homesick French monk: hence the church and well shared the same dedication. In 1243, Abbot John assigned the rectory of Hexton to the sacrist of the Abbey, and the revenue was so great that it was shared with the almonry. Indeed the revenue was greater than the parson’s holdings and tithes. The well thus attracted great numbers and an alehouse was established for their benefit, this is now Red Lion cottage next to the school.
Unfortunately, St. Faith’s Well fell afoul of the Reformation, but luckily lord of the manor Francis Taverner, recorded a great deal of details regarding it. Indeed, his description has become a valuable guide to the possible complexity of less recorded sites. He described the well and its position as follows:
“There is a small persell of ground adjoining to the churchyard called St Ffaith’s Wick Court, about a pole in measurement, anciently divided from Malewick by a ditch in the same place now a large moat is made. The greatest parte standing upon a bedde of springs, and undrained was very boggye, towards the churchyard. But the west side of the wick, being higher ground….neer adjoining unto which…the Craftye Priests had made a well.”
The well itself was:
“about a yard deep and very cleere in the bottome, and curbed about. Now over this well, they built a house.”
Pilgrimage to the well involved adulation to an image of the dedicated saint, for he notes that:
“..in this house they placed an image or statue of St Ffaith and a cawsey they had made…. for people to passe, who resorted thither from four and neere to visit our lady and to perform their devotions.”
The well would seem to be beneficial for foot complaints for pilgrims would be:
“… revently kissing a fine colured stone placed on her toe’ which was believed to bestow cures.”
Also the sick would throw something (nothing is specifically described) into the well:
“..which if swamme above they were accepted and there petition granted, but if it sinke, then rejected which the experienced Prieste had arts enove to cause to swymme or sinke according as himselfe was pleased with the partye, or rather with the offering made by the partye.”
It would appear that the priest was able to influence the object like some kind of wizard. Unfortunately, the land was drained and levelled in 1624 being noted that:
“St. Faith’s Well continued as a waste and unprofitable and neglected piece of land till such time as the footpath was turned through the midst of it to the outside on the south by the highway, and their clearing and levelling the ground.”
It is worth noting that the effigy of the saint was dressed and in an old book of churchwarden’s accounts, in the reign of Henry VIII it is noted that:
“that they had delivered unto the St. Faith a cote and a velvet tippet.”
Land lying in Mill Field, called St. Faith’s ½ acre, which associated with the shrine, came to the King’s hands at the dissolution, and is now parcel of the demesnes. The approximate site can be seen to the side of the church, where a small picturesque pool of water is apparent. The collapse of the tower may have been as a result of undermining from the spring.
In our days of heritage protection it seems astounding that single handed one man could remove this great site, but they did. However, the name St Faith’s wick court is remembered and the water from the well still remains it appears to fill the moat but it is a poor replacement for what sounded like a fascinating site in this remote area of Hertfordshire.
This year I will finish my book on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire a county which has been surprisingly rich in fascinating sites and last summer I had the pleasure of doing a field trip with fellow wellie and member of the Holy wells and sacred springs of Britain Facebook Group and admin of the Holy, ancient and roadside wells of Warwickshire group Steve Bladon as we explored a number of sites around Rugby. Perhaps one of the most unusual wells is found at Watergall Bridge on the outskirts of the parish is the Monk’s Well (SP 418 548).
The Monk’s Well is not marked on the map as such but its location can be surmised by the presence of a blue W above an old farm house off the A423 road. A footpath went from the road, past an old farm house and directly to the well or rather veered a little to the left but close enough to have a quick look anyway. However when we arrived there, there was no sign of a path beyond the gate. As we pondered map in hand our next move, the farmer appeared. He was curious of what we wishing to do but as soon as he learnt we were interested in the well he became very welcoming and told us about the history of his house which appeared to have been once a manor house with the remains of the walls of a very large garden being visible to the side of the house. The farmer gave us permission to explore the well; he added that he used to go down into it when he was a teenager but hadn’t looked inside for years. He knew of the legend an unusual one, and one I had not read associated with any British holy well.
A hidden well
Climbing the hill where the spring was marked on the map in blue lettering the first significant site we encountered was the large conduit house. This is a substantial brick building, an arch approximately eight metres in diameter over a large rectangular pool of clear water, 14 by 25 metres. Originally the date 1618 was over the arch but this has now been lost. It is a substantial structure.
Climbing further up to the site of a well one is greeted by a modern metal drain cover. Not very promising. But carefully lifting it a shaft can be seen. This shaft itself is remarkably well made being made of dressed stone with stones projecting out allowing someone to climb down into the well, the spring of which appears to arise around two metres into the ground.
The bottom of the well is rather unusual being about 37 metres across and again well made of dressed stone with a stone seat. The spring arises beneath a rectangular slab of stone. It is the seat which is of interest. A pipe conveys the water away to the conduit house which itself supplied the house below. The earliest record of both sites appears to be C. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land:
“About a quarter of a mile west of the house is an eminence with an irregular hollow forty yards across and oft. or 6ft. deep, in the centre of which is a singular rectangular pit lined with dressed stone, having angle stones on two sides to facilitate the descent. It is 7ft. 7inches. deep, 2ft. square at the top, and 4ft. at the bottom, where there is a stone trough through which the water flows from a spring in the hill above.”
A Monk’s penance
As stated the seat if on interest for an oral tradition records that the monks inhabited the nearby manor house and were sent down into the well as a form of penance explaining the seat. An unusual form of penance but in line with other traditions perhaps of immurement. Evidence for the tradition that transgressing monks were somehow incarcerated in walls is scant however a discovery of a skeleton found with a book and candle behind a wall in Thorney Abbey Lincolnshire may well record it. However, was there ever a religious community at the site? The only scant evidence is that records show that early in the 13th century Henry son of William Boscher gave to the monks of Combe Abbey land on Heidune for building a new mill, and a little later John de Lodbroke gave 3 acres ‘below the mill’, this being evidently a windmill It is also recorded that on 14 February, 1227, the prior and monks of Coventry were granted in perpetuity a weekly market on Wednesdays at their manor of Southam (Suham) and a yearly fair at Coventry on the feast of St. Leger and the seven following days. However, this does not suggest there was any property here. A tradition records that they may have had a grange there. The local legend was known by the owner of the land but he believes there was never a religious house here the land being owned by the Spencers in medieval times. But it seems unlikely they had enough monks that would need such a bespoke penance.
Perhaps a better alternative is that the custom remembers the time when a hermit lived by the spring in a chamber, maybe the surviving chamber, protected from the elements. As the start appears never to have been investigated archaeologically. There are the lumps and bumps of a lost village not far from the spring although interesting not really near enough to have had the settlement settled around it, it feels. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land is more prosaic
“On the north side is a recess with a seat in it, probably to accommodate the person who cleared the trough.”
Whatever the truth it is the most unusual of sites in the county and perhaps the oddest legend in the country. Interesting in an area noted once for a large lake, hence the name Watergall, gall deriving from an Old English word for watery, it is not alone. Before the farm near the road is a mineral spring of which is noted by the owner of the farm that there were plans to develop it into a spa in the 1920s with full details being published locally but I have yet to find them. It arises in dilapidated wooden shed in a rectangular basin. Iron chalybeate water can be seen but the flow is sluggish.
It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s second part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw
On the Tuesday of Holy Week 1188 Giraldus and Archbishop Baldwin rode from Bangor to Rhuddlan Castle, where they were entertained for the night. On Wednesday Baldwin preached the Crusade in Rhuddlan, before saying Mass in St Asaph cathedral, after which his party rode on to spend the night at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell. On the Thursday they rode to Chester. At some point (Giraldus’ mention is made between his accounts of Tuesday evening and the events of Wednesday, so that he probably heard it at Rhuddlan on Tuesday night) they were told of a spring not far from Rhuddlan which ebbed and flowed twice daily with the tides, but which was also liable to rise and fall frequently throughout the day. Humphrey Llwyd identified Giraldus’ unnamed spring with an unnamed ebbing-and-flowing well in Cilcain parish; adding that the spring was observed to dry up at a certain time of the year. Llwyd’s identification of Giraldus’ spring with the Cilcain well was followed by David Powel, who named the latter as Ffynnon Leinw; and Camden followed Powel in locating an ebbing-and-flowing spring in the parish of Cilcain, without naming it. Richard Mostyn and, after him, Edward Lhwyd, suggested that Ffynnon Asa, in Cwm parish, as being closer to Rhuddlan, was a more plausible match for Giraldus’ spring; also noting that Ffynnon Leinw no longer ebbed and flowed.
Giraldus’ topographical notices in the Itinerarium were almost entirely anecdotal, apparently dependent upon the casual comments of his hosts; the hit-and-miss character of this kind of information-gathering can be assessed from the fact that, although he spent a night at Basingwerk, he has no account of St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, although its fame was by then long established in north-east Wales and the northern Marches – its absence is best explained by assuming that no-one happened to mention the Holywell well to Giraldus during his few brief hours at Basingwerk.
Ffynnon Leinw and Ffynnon Asa were not the only ebbing-and-flowing wells in Wales. Giraldus had mentioned another one in his Itinerarium Cambriae, at Dinefwr (I, 10: Giraldus 1908, 74). Francis Jones wrote that ebbing and flowing was “a claim common to many Welsh wells”. (Jones 1954, 53: Jones noticed the claim for a Ffynnon Fednant, in Caernarfonshire – ib. 154; Llandyfeisant Well, Carmarthenshire, i.e., the Dinefwr well – p. 171; Ff. Asa and Ff. Leinw, in Flintshire – 178, 180; Ff. Maen y Milgi, Llandrillo, in Merioneth – 193; two wells at Chepstow, Monmouthshire – 196; and St Non’s Well, at St Davids, Carncwn Well, at Newport, Ff. Lygaid, at St Davids, and Pencw Wells, at Goodwick, all in Pembrokeshire – 210, 212, 213, 216.) James Rattue (1995, 114) notes that such wells were reported in England, and were particularly attractive to antiquarian writers such as Camden; on p. 117 he quotes Camden quoting an ode by Sir John Stradling to an ebbing-and-flowing well at Newton, in Glamorganshire. (This is St John’s Well, Newton; Jones 1954, 183, listed the well, but missed the ebbing-and-flowing claim, and Stradling’s poem.)
Less than two miles from Rhuddlan, Ffynnon Asa is a plausible identification for Giraldus’ spring; Ffynnon Leinw, rather less so. But, given the sheer number of wells for which such claims were made, it cannot be certain that Giraldus’ spring should be identified with either Ffynnon Asa or Ffynnon Leinw. What is certain is that the ubiquity of Camden’s Britannia guaranteed that a well in Cilcain parish – more exactly identified by Powel with Ffynnon Leinw – was for centuries identified as being fed by an ebbing-and-flowing spring.
So far as I am aware, the claim of regular twice-daily ebbing and flowing has never been established for any of the many springs for which the claim has been made in the past. What is probably being witnessed by such claims is a common but irregular fluctuation in water levels created by sustained periods of more or less rainfall, observed casually, from time to time, by persons who noted different water levels each time they had cause to visit the well, and invoked the example of the universal regular tidal ebbing and flowing as an explanation of a local phenomenon. In certain instances it may be that one has to do with a periodic spring, dry for part of the year, but returning after prolonged rainfall; certainly this seems to be what Humphrey Llwyd was recording for the Cilcain well.
Flintshire is famous for its wells, which owe their existence to the Carboniferous Limestone that constitutes its central plain. This rock is porous and the water percolates it till it comes in contact with impermeable shale or clay, where it accumulates and finds its way again to the surface through some of the many fissures … Ffynnon Leinw, “the flowing well,” in Cilcain parish, was at one time an intermittent spring, flowing at regular intervals, owing to syphon action, but it has long lost this peculiarity (Edwards 1914, 25, 27).
This and related phenomena are common in the local limestone landscape. Numbers of the rivers and streams flowing through Cilcain parish run underground for some distance at certain times of the year; as the Parochialia noted:
All their rivulets dive. [It names the Alun, “underground abt 3 quarters of a mile” (it sinks at a place below Cilcain village called Hesp Alun, “the dry Alun”); the Fechlas, “underground hlf a mile it breaks forth at a place therefore call’d tarth y Dŵr” (Tardd y Dŵr, “eruption, or issue, of water”); and the Cain, “dives for hlf a mile more and so to Alen within the P’ish”.] They have severall other Rills that dive (Lhwyd 1909, 80-1).
(The overflow from Ffynnon Leinw drains into the Fechlas; Tardd y Dŵr is two-thirds of a mile west of the well: SJ 175 675. Tardd y Dŵr and Ffynnon Leinw are both in the former Cilcain township of Dolfechlas.) The places of their re-emergence would all exhibit greater or lesser volumes of water, depending on the rainfall. With regard to Ffynnon Leinw, more careful observation (as suggested by Richard Mostyn and Pennant) would have cleared up the popular suggestion of any twice-daily ebbing and flowing.
The suggestion here is that Ffynnon Leinw, before its final drying-up as a result of mining locally (cf. RCAHM 1912, 16; Davies 1959, 65 – if indeed it has really dried up; it would seem still to flow periodically: cf. Davis 2003, 71), was a periodic spring whose flow varied with the rainfall, and which often ceased to flow altogether during drier periods of the year. This idea is perhaps reinforced by the name of the well. The element leinw has caused placename scholars a number of problems (cf. e.g. Davies 1959, 65), but it may simply relate in some way to the verb llanw or llenwi, “to fill”, and to the masculine noun llanw, “influx”. (The ll > l is simply the regular lenition, following the feminine noun ffynnon, “well”; in just this way the personal names Mair and Mihangel mutate to give Ffynnon Fair and Ffynnon Fihangel. ) It is in this sense that Pennant understood the element, when he translated Ffynnon Leinw as “the flowing well”. Professor Hywel Wyn Owen has commented on the name:
The form leinw cannot be explained as a noun or adjective. Most Welsh speakers would know leinw from Psalms 84.6 ‘y glaw a leinw y llynnau’ [“the rain also filleth the pools” – AV]. That was in the old translation … The Psalms use leads me to suspect that the well was originally y ffynnon a leinw ‘the well which fills’. In time the relative pronoun was omitted leaving us with y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw (pers. comm. to TGH, 14 December 2015).
The name would thus seem to reference the sudden filling of a well with the recommencement of a periodic spring after heavy rain. It would seem not to carry any inevitable sense of a regular ebbing and flowing like the sea’s tides, but only of flowing; though doubtless the secondary use of the noun llanw for “the flow of the tide” would facilitate any popular misinterpretation of such periodic springs as regularly ebbing and flowing.
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In 1994 after a period of absence Source was reborn under the helm of Tristan Gray Hulse and Roy Fry. Under their stewardship Source became more academically minded and in particular focused more on monograms of specific sites which were merticulously researched. Tristan himself due to his monastic background contributing some important pieces as well as questioning some long held folklore views in the subject such as head cults. After source went on to research and write a number of scholarly pieces on saint cults and holy wells including a piece on votive offerings at St Trillo’s well in the folklore journal as well as being involved with St Winifred’s well in Holywell. So it is with great pleasure and a great honour that his unpublished monogram on a north Welsh well – and how Welsh wells doyen Francis Jones could get it wrong – in my celebration of Source.
Immediately to the north of Plas Llandecwyn, on the side of an ancient lane leading uphill towards the church of St Tecwyn, Llandecwyn, Merioneth, a short distance away, is the holy well of St Tecwyn. It is still just as it was described 100 years ago by the Royal Commission Inspecting Officer.
Ffynnon Decwyn … The antiquary Edward Lhuyd, or a correspondent of his, writing about the year 1698, has the note “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll. Deckwyn not far from ye church”.
Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to a depth of 14 inches, and as there is a slight but steady overflow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is now not connected with it … Visited, 15 August, 1914 (An Inventory 1921, 82, § 214).
The name Ffynnon Decwyn is apparently now in common use for the well once more.
The Inspecting Officer continued his entry by noting
“a spot about 330 yards north-east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road”.
This unnamed well also survives much as described, though it is now covered with small rough slabs of stone, for protection. And a few yards south of the lych-gate is another spring, rising at the northern or upper end of what appears to have been a regularly rectangular tank, now choked with water-weeds. It is initially tempting to guess that one or other of these unnamed springs represents a further sacred well claimed for the parish, Ffynnon Fair, listed by Francis Jones in his The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).
Jones, citing Edward Lhwyd in reference, included the well in his list of Ffynhonnau Mair in Merioneth in his gazetteer of Welsh holy wells:
Ff. Fair … 2. ‘By ye Church’ in Llandecwyn parish – Lhuyd Par. ii. 105 (Jones 1954, 191).
However, it turns out that this well is no more than a “ghost”, created by Jones’ trusting but careless reading of Lhwyd in the at-this-point potentially confusing editing of the Parochialia texts by Rupert Morris. As the printed edition stands (Lhwyd Paroch., part 2, 1910), the entry for “Llandekwyn” runs from p. 103 to the foot of p. 106, and notices “Fynnon vair by ye Church” on p. 105 and “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll Deckwyn not far from ye church” on p. 106. The Llandecwyn entry is immediately followed by that for “Mantwrog” (top of p. 107), which, as it stands, consists of only six lines.
But it is clear that a section of this arrangement (from p. 104 line 7 to p. 105 line 30, reproducing pp. 131-133 of the original Lhwyd ms as seen and edited by Morris) has been displaced in the original Lhwyd ms; this section all refers to Maentwrog parish, not to Llandecwyn, and must originally have followed and completed the now minimal Maentwrog entry (at the bottom of original ms p. 137) printed at the top of Lhwyd 1910, p. 107. This restores the original reading, a complete text, of the normal Parochialia format, for Maentwrog immediately following a complete text of familiar format for Llandecwyn (thus, originally: Llandecwyn, ms pp. 129-130, 136-137; Maentwrog, ms pp. foot of p. 137, 131-133).
This explains why the mentions of Ffynnon Decwyn and Ffynnon Fair are separated in the Morris printed text. It also means that “Fynnon vair by ye Church” was in Maentwrog parish, not in Llandecwyn; and that, therefore, there is no mention of a Ffynnon Fair in Llandecwyn parish. The Llandecwyn Ffynnon Fair is an inadvertent creation of Francis Jones, who then duplicates the well by separately noticing the Maentwrog well, from the Royal Commission Inventory for Merioneth:
Ff. Fair … 7. About 80 yards SE of Maentwrog church: it supplied the neighbouring houses – Anc. Mon. Mer. (Jones 1954, 191).
The Maentwrog well still survives, basically as per the Inventory:
Ffynnon Fair … This well is situated on sloping ground about 80 yards south-east of the church, and north of a terrace called Bron Fair. It is now enclosed in a square slate cistern, and [in 1914 still, but no longer] supplies the neighbouring houses (An Inventory 1921, 154, § 498).
Tristan Gray Hulse
25 April 2016
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. VI. County of Merioneth, London: HMSO, 1921
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954
Lhwyd, Edward, Parochialia, being a summary of answers to “Parochial Queries in order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, ed. Rupert H. Morris, part 2, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1910